We’re back with another film profile, and since we’re smack in the middle of a series on home-developing black-and-white film we’ve decided to spotlight, you guessed it, a black-and-white film. But we won’t be messing about with chromogenic, desensitized C-41 film (sorry Kodak BW400CN and Ilford XP2). No, no, there will be no pretenders today. Today we’re shooting true black-and-white.
While we could’ve easily extolled the many virtues of Tri-X and HP5, or the grainless wonders of T-Max and FP4, we wanted to talk about something a little less obvious. Instead of visiting the familiar factories at Rochester or Sunderland, we’ll be taking a trip to the Czech Republic. We’ll shoot black-and-white the way they do it in Prague, and see if the continental Europeans are onto something.
Today we’re examining Foma’s Fomapan Creative 200. This oft-overlooked film remains one of the finest black-and-white films currently available on the market. And while it may not be for everyone, its many virtues will have certain photogs falling in love.
[Words and images by Josh Solomon]
Avid shooters of Tri-X and its descendants may find that the name on the box doesn’t inspire much confidence. Fomapan Creative 200? If we’re honest, it sounds a bit like an unwanted film you’d find hanging dust-covered at the drug store checkout. But let’s break it down and see if this book is better than its cover.
First word: Fomapan. What’s a Fomapan, you ask? Who is Fomapan? No, it’s not made by Kodak, nor Ilford, Fuji, or any of the recent crop of super-popular, small-batch film manufacturers. But while many of us may have never heard of the film before, believe it or not Fomapan has been around since 1921. In fact, Foma has long been one of the major extant producers of photographic materials in continental Europe, alongside Agfa, and seems to be quite strong in the present day. Even as photo geeks have waved goodbye to Ferrania, Efke, and others, the shelves have always somehow been stocked with a few rolls of Foma.
Next word: Creative. An unfortunate move by Fomapan. It’s a word that imbues as much, if not significantly less, than the Nike swoosh on your shoes. If you can’t play ball, you can’t play ball. And if you can’t create, then you can’t create. Just as no shoe can make you jump as high as Michael Jordan, neither can a film be more creative than others, or more ludicrously, make a photographer more creative. Stop pulling our chain, Fomapan marketing guys.
And the final component of the name on the box, 200; a number that, in film speed at least, screams of indecision. Not slow enough for ultimate sharpness, not fast enough for eye-popping contrast and grit; it’s Charlie Brown in a film canister. It’s khaki in the form of silver halide crystals. It’s the official film speed of “good enough”.
Snap judgement? We’re looking at a film from a comparatively small-time company at a “whatever” speed sold with a promise of magical creative stimulation. Sounds unappealing, right? Great, because your disinterest means there’ll be more Fomapan for me.
The truth is that Fomapan Creative 200 is capable of so much more than the name suggests. If we throw away our initial book-cover judgements, we find a film that produces images that other films just can’t. It’s not for everybody, but for those of us lucky enough to know, it’s a perfect film. So what is this quality and where does it come from?
Foma 200 is a child of the new age, or at least a more modern age. Its emulsion rather deftly combines traditional grain structures (Tri-X and HP5) with so-called T-grain structures (T-Max, FP4). What we get, instead of a mediocre midpoint between the two, is a fantastic marriage of the two philosophies. We get a lot of the grit from the traditional films without sacrificing the sharpness found in newer ones. The result is a film that’s appropriate for pretty much any scenario. Sharp landscapes? No problem. Dreamy portraits with a touch of that sweet grain? Sure. This film can do all that and more without breaking a sweat.
A visit to the many photography-related forums on the internet will tell you about Fomapan 200’s true speed. Many suggest exposing at 160, while some will tell you to go all the way down to 100. I personally have never had many issues exposing at box speed, but I tend to err on the side of overexposure whenever I shoot negative film with a lot of latitude. All told, one should feel confident in exposing this film at box speed.
As touched on before, ISO 200 seems rather lukewarm, but the risks often associated with shooting such a film simply aren’t present. Rather than being a rigid guideline, the box speed of ISO 200 more accurately refers to the sweet-spot in the middle of the film’s exceptional latitude, which Foma’s website claims is 100-800 before we see any change in exposure. Pretty impressive, and doubly so coming from a shooter who regularly pushes Tri-X to the heavens for low-light work. And boy, does it deliver.
Some of my best low-light shots have come from this film, and it’s all due to the film’s exceptional latitude and unique rendering. For example, the shot above was rather surreptitiously shot in a dark music venue in downtown LA. At box speed with available light only, we can see the film performed admirably, even though my light meter said that I was underexposing and that I was going to die as a result.
I decided on a shutter speed and aperture that would at least expose something on the negative. 1/30th of a second, f/1.4, a small prayer, and then the silky smooth shutter release of my XE-7. I opened the file in Lightroom days later and my jaw dropped. The negative was beautiful, and it cut out nearly everything going on in the background that wasn’t directly lit. It was as if I had meticulously lit the scene and planned everything out, but really it was as close to a snapshot as you could get. Had I shot this with a faster film, I would have had to deal with a busier background.
What’s even more remarkable is the tonality and the detail of the film. The mid-tones look perfect straight from the scan, and nothing is blown out. The shadow detail looks to be just right and even in high contrast situations no information is lost, allowing for effortless editing. A remarkable amount of detail is allowed to be resolved (with help from my fantastic Minolta MD 50mm f/1.4), the grain doesn’t lower sharpness, and there’s just something about it. It doesn’t have the signature pop of Tri-X, but it’s not flat either.
And herein lies the strongest asset of the film. It’s absolutely, unapologetically, old-school. Even though its makeup tells you otherwise, this film produces that wonderful lower-contrast effect we see in older black-and-white photographs. Even more, it produces this look with an added bump in sharpness, but not enough to jolt us back into the modern age of clinical films.
Everything I’ve ever shot with this film has a kind of vintage photojournalistic look to it, a look that was a big part of the images that made me fall in love with photography.
It’s tough to quantify this, but the quality of images made with Fomapan Creative 200 remind me of those made by one of my favorite photojournalists, Josef Koudelka, who shot many famous photos of the 1968 Prague Spring. Could his camera (an Exacta, I believe) have been loaded with Czech-made cinema film cut from the ends of exposed movie reels? Who can say. But I see a lot of the same spirit being carried through in this film, and that’s a look I’ve long been searching for, and a look that I’ve been unable to find from any film from any manufacturer. That is, until now. Fomapan, I applaud you.
For those of you who develop your own film, there are a few things to consider. In regards to film curl, this is actually one of the most well-behaved films I’ve encountered. It’s certainly better than Tri-X in this regard, which I have to smash between a couple of textbooks for days after drying before it will flatten. But remember that Fomapan benefits greatly from a 2 to 5 minute pre-soak to prevent curl, and proper hanging will help things along as well. Follow this advice and you’ll have compliant negatives for your scanner holder.
Also worth mentioning is that the film uses a blue polyester base that washes away during development, so don’t be surprised when blue-black slop comes pouring out of your jug. If you value the shelf-life of your fixer, do yourself a favor and pick up a funnel with a built in strainer. It’ll catch all of the waste and you can throw it away afterwards.
For all of the praise I heap upon Foma 200, there are a couple of considerations for shooters looking to get a do-it-all film. This film, while good for general-purpose photography, is only going to get you a very specific look that may not work in all applications. Some people may not like the lower contrast and lower dynamic range compared to the big-name films. Some may not like the old-school look, which, to be honest, can wear thin after a couple rolls. Sometimes I want a little more of that grit and contrast or a little bit more of that creamy smoothness. But then again, variety is the spice of life, and luckily there are still loads of spices to choose from.
If you want razor sharp results to show off the capabilities of your gear, you may be more taken with the T-Grained films, and if you want super speed pick up some Tri-X, some HC-110, and go nuts. Or load up some Delta 3200 and do your best Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler impression. Fomapan Creative 200 will do a lot, but it will do it in its own way and within its own parameters. That said, it’s capable of a great deal and won’t let you down if you work with it.
For whom is this emulsion best suited? I’d say it’s mostly for those who prefer classic looking images and shooting with mechanical machines. Loading Foma into an autofocus SLR wonder or a super-automated point-and-shoot just feels a little wrong. Sure, you’ll have tack sharp images and all, but this film just doesn’t strike me as being for those particular machines. Now, if you load it into a classic mechanical standby like Nikon’s F or a Minolta SRT, this film will be right at home.
The look is a little dated, but that’s the whole beauty of it. And since the only way to get images from the 1960s is to shoot expired film from the era (which is often a crapshoot) the fact that Fomapan affords us much the same opportunity without any of the risk is a wonderful thing indeed.
The film keeps a certain spirit alive, just like our classic cameras do. Sure, we can get sharper and more capable films just the same as we can get better lenses and more clinically perfect cameras, but we keep coming back to the old stuff for a reason. Much of that comes from a certain look, and images made with Fomapan 200 have that look in spades.
Is Fomapan for you? Do you secretly wish to live a life of mid-20th century photojournalistic intrigue? Or do you just yearn for something other than the standard black-and-white fare? There’s only one way to find out.
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